As a prelude to venturing into audiobook recording, a friend asked me to provide a sample narration. I would be the narrator of 5 minutes from a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Well, I had just moved from Maine to Portland. I live in a 540 square foot apartment in the city, on the second floor, above the shops on the quieter east side of the building. I had no studio. I had some essential equipment mailed to myself from Maine that should have adequately equipped me. In fact, I had a beat-up stage mic hooked up already on a boom stand and the latest version of GarageBand recording software on the Mac. Surely, I thought, there will be a quiet moment in the day when I can dash this out.
The manager of the apartment told me that the walls have sound insulation and the exterior windows are sound-resistant, tempered hurricane glass. In fairness to him, there is certainly enough sound buffering between tenants so that I can play and sing my acoustic guitar without bothering the neighbor, and the occasional passing emergency sirens are quite tolerable with the window closed. Achieving some silent moments should not be tough. Until I really started listening to my surroundings. . . .
My apartment has a refrigerator. I can’t control when its compressor kicks in or how long it lasts. If I unplug it, I lose my food. Narrators need food. When someone upstairs flushes a toilet, there is the distinct sound of splashing water loud enough to ruin a recording that is taking place in an otherwise in a quiet room. I stepped into the bathroom. There is room for a mic and stand by the toilet and a chair. I laid a quilt over the shower door to dampen most of the resonance in the room. It felt right. With the door shut, I could not hear the refrigerator or the cars. This could work!
Then, a sound I must have tuned out hours ago came to my attention. The ceiling fan in the bathroom was running. It had no plans to stop either—until 3 minutes after I leave the room and the motion sensor on the lamp turns it off. I laid 4 layers of masking tape on top of each other and slightly folded over the ends, then let the sticky side pull some lint from my shirt, then attached the tape to cover the motion sensor on the lamp. That did the trick. No more fan.
I felt lucky when the only spare mic cable I owned turned out to be long enough to reach from the computer to the bathroom like it was custom cut. The next problem on the list is that I cannot be two places at once, and the recording system is in the other room. I have an iPhone. I checked the Apps Library. I found an app that is a remote control interface for GarageBand. It appeared to work like a charm. I love technology.
I have a nice studio mic in a protective box that was shipped here inside a bigger box via USPS ground. I plugged it in and made some noise. The meter stood still. The mic was dead. It is the only one I have besides an EV stage mic held together by a rubber band. On the web, I found a shop a few blocks away that claims it can repair mics. I paid them $67 to try with no promises. I can get a new mic for $150 shipped. But I hate to waste things that can be repaired. I took a chance. I will know the results in three weeks. For now, I’m stuck with the EV stage mic.
The next step is to adjust some input levels on the pre-amp and the recording system so that no matter how excited you get while reading, the meter will never spike too high, but the signal is as strong as it can be. That requires text recordings. I entered the bathroom, closed the door, pressed the red button on my iPhone and began the first test. During the test, workmen started a portable generator on the sidewalk near my apartment windows. The noise penetrated even into the bathroom.
The next day, I picked up where I left off with a few test recordings. The first short segment went well. I walked back to the Mac to see if it was doing what the remote controller was telling it. Looked good. I returned to my seat and continued. What I didn’t notice was, for some mysterious reason, the mic disconnected. I narrated to a dead mic for a few minutes.
I walked back to the Mac to move the cursor back to the end of the successful segment and try to find out what turned off the mic. I still have no way of knowing why it goes off, but I did find a button on the remote app that let’s me make sure it is on. To move the cursor back, I first reached for the Scissors icon, which opens the Edit window below. When I pressed it, GarageBand disappeared. No kidding. Poof. I took a break to gather my thoughts.
I decided to spend some time practicing my narrating without the mic on. It had been a year and a handful of somewhat traumatic adventures since I had done narrative recording. I was rusty. I called up the ebook copy of the Sherlock Holmes adventure that I found at Gutenberg.org using the Kindle reader on my Windows laptop. With the laptop sitting on the toilet, I tried several adjustments to font size, words on the line length, and width of the reader window until I found the setting that felt the easiest to read. Then I started to try different reading speeds.
When I thought I was reading slowly, I was actually reading pretty fast. That meant I could slow down, which was good, because at a slower speed, I made fewer reading mistakes. Every time there is a reading mistake, I have to pause the recording, to create a break in the wave segment so I can spot that error easily later, and delete it. Narrating is very much like playing a musical instrument while reading sheet music. I am reciting on phrase, while reading ahead and preparing to read the next phrase. When it is your own writing, it flows out much easier than when it is only the second time you have seen the text. I admire people who do this better than I do and aspire to that level.
On the third day, I took the tape off the lamp and showered, I ate a big breakfast, drank hot tea, talked to myself for an hour, set up the bathroom for recording, then gave it a go. It did not come through on the first try, but I came out with a sample. I anticipated more problems the whole time, so you might hear some stressful restraint in my voice, but perhaps that went well with the personality of the main character. I’m quite certain my samples will improve with a little more warming up and fewer technical hurdles.
Here are the results of my narrative experiments, gremlins be damned.
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Gremlin image by Davide Restivo, Creative Commons Share-Alike license.